By Joe White
Is Democracy for losers? The noble answer is, yes. A case in point is the vote for American independence in July of 1776. Democracy attempts to resolve the inevitable conflicts that arise amongst human beings, even amongst intelligent, good-willed, well-informed human beings. Democracy is an attempt to decide fairly rather than who shall prevail by means of violence, deceit or treachery. In a democracy when one loses a fair democratic vote, one is expected to accept the outcome. It is easier to accept the outcome when one wins. But, when one loses, one’s original position is typically much more compromised. The inability to compromise or accept defeat is undemocratic. There are obviously hard cases here. i.e. the civil rights movement in the U.S., but not the Affordable Care Act, but this is not the place for contrarians and nuance. AYWW supports democracy, finding compromise to be a primary virtue of the democratic spirit. Teasing out the complexity of these claims in real life circumstances is not easy. However, what happened in Philadelphia on those hot, stormy, summer days between July 1 and July 4, 1776 is instructive, edifying and offers hope for 2020 A Year Without War.
Mr. John Dickinson, delegate from Pennsylvania, is someone who does not readily come to mind when one thinks of the colonies voting for independence. Perhaps it is because he did not vote for independence. It was his willingness to lose and accept a democratic vote in a context steeped in fear for his own life, his family’s well-being, and the very welfare of his community that makes Dickinson’s decision to abstain intriguing. A man who lost the vote while defending his principles and did not attempt to thwart the democratic process after it became apparent that his views were minority views. It seems a view foreign to much contemporary American political life. Ironically, in some cases today, those most intolerant of losing a vote, and on votes not nearly as momentous as Dickinson faced, consider themselves the most patriotic on the Fourth of July.
As told by David McCullough in his “John Adams,” on July 1, 1776, the final decision was to be made by the Continental Congress regarding independence from Britain. There was not unanimity amongst the colonies on July 1 regarding independence and it was believed that with such a momentous decision, which clearly put each of the delegates’ lives at risk for treason, there should be a unanimous voice. As Benjamin Franklin allegedly remarked during the proceedings, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
John Dickinson stood on that July 1 to make the case before the Congress that this was not the time for independence. Independence was desirable but to undertake that formidable task at this particular time was “…to brave the storm in a skiff made of paper.” John Adams, followed Dickenson, giving a rebuttal speech urging that there were “Objects of the most stupendous magnitude… now before us.” Indeed, now was the historical moment, our moment, to declare our independence of Britain. Thomas Jefferson described Adams’ speech as delivered “with a power of thought and expression that moved us from our seats.”
So, when precisely was the correct time for such a break from the superpower of the day, Britain? While the debate continued for over nine hours that day, a decision on when exactly to declare independence is surely an issue over which reasonable people might, and did, disagree. When a preliminary vote was taken on July 1, four colonies were not voting for independence. New York abstained. South Carolina voted no. Delaware was divided and the significant colony of Pennsylvania voted No with John Dickinson. For the sake of gaining unanimity, Edward Rutledge moved that the final vote be postponed until the next day, July 2. Perhaps with some lobbying that night in the taverns, some minds might be changed. Unanimity might be found.
It appeared to all at the Continental Congress that the majority of the population of Pennsylvania favored independence contrary to John Dickinson but Dickinson was a man who stood on principle. During his previous day’s remarks he stated that “… his conduct this day… will give the finishing blow to my once … and now too diminished popularity…. but thinking as I do on the subject of debate, silence would be guilt.” After an apparently intense night of lobbying, the delegates returned to Independence Hall on July 2 to take a vote. The third Delaware delegate had arrived and Delaware voted for independence, as did South Carolina. When it came to Pennsylvania, John Dickinson and a likeminded Pennsylvania delegate, Robert Morris, absented themselves. Apparently accepting that a single voice was necessary and after failing to make their case, they still could not in conscience vote for independence. They abstained so as not to be obstacles, and Pennsylvania voted three to two for independence. New York again abstained as a block. While not a unanimous vote for independence, it could be honestly claimed that no colony voted against independence. Dickinson went on to serve in the Continental Army and continue a life active in early colonial politics. He also attended the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
AYWW values democratic ideals and admires those who articulately and knowledgably defend their principled positions. When one discovers that a fair process has been followed and one has simply lost the vote, even as momentous a vote as to think one has put one’s life and the lives of others on an imminent and dangerous path yet, as a loser, one abides by democratic principles, that person is a noble, political soul. Indeed, democracy is for losers. One should not expect to always prevail after all no one is omniscient nor infallible. AYWW asks how many of the world’s conflicts today are the result of the incapacity to compromise? Self-assured presumptions of infallibility stir conflict? Many today desire to win, come what may, that the rest of us, the majority of us, remain their victims. JOIN AYWW to make your voice heard. WE can win in articulating our global, democratic vote.